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How the Navajo Nation helped Democrats win Arizona

Indigenous voters are often forgotten about. But they may have been key in turning swing states for Democrats.

Emerson Gorman, a Navajo elder, with his family in the Navajo Nation town of Steamboat in Arizona. There are roughly 67,000 eligible voters in the Navajo Nation.
Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Indigenous voters have often been overlooked by both political parties and categorized as “something else” by the media. But that didn’t stop them from turning out for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in swing states, even amid a devastating pandemic, and giving him a winning edge.

In Arizona, which has gone Republican in every presidential election but one in the past 60-odd years, Biden won by a margin of fewer than 12,000 votes, according to the latest data. Indigenous people make up nearly 6 percent of the state’s population, with eligible voters in the Navajo Nation reaching roughly 67,000 — and 60 to 90 percent of those Navajo Nation voters went for Biden, according to precinct-level data, helping push him ahead as the winner.

In Wisconsin, another key battleground state, Indigenous voters also may have aided Biden’s narrow win. Native Americans make up about 1.2 percent of the state’s population, or 70,000 people. While the exact percentage of the Native vote Biden received is still uncertain, some key facts point to voter turnout in tribal lands. Menominee County, dubbed a bellwether for the state, overlaps with the Menominee Reservation and has an Indigenous population of nearly 90 percent. Biden won the county with 1,303 votes, compared to President Donald Trump’s 278 votes.

drive-thru voter registration
The Rural Utah Project organized drive-through voter registration events across the Navajo Nation ahead of the 2020 election.
Rural Utah Project

And this was despite a pandemic that made voting harder for a population that has been historically disenfranchised. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, grassroots organizers in the Navajo Nation — whose territory stretches across New Mexico, Utah, and northern Arizona — were able to attend chapter meetings and perform door-to-door campaigns to encourage people to register to vote. But as the pandemic continued to overwhelm tribal communities, field organizers had to figure out other ways to reach out to Native American voters while limiting physical contact to prevent the spread of the virus. It was a challenge, considering many homes in Indian reservations do not have formal addresses and post offices tend to be miles away.

However, the pandemic didn’t stop organizations like the Rural Utah Project from doing the work. When the lockdown was lifted in May, field organizers in the Navajo Nation returned to the ground and left flyers with voting information inside resealable plastic bags at people’s doors. The group had also partnered with Google to provide plus codes that serve as addresses based on longitudes and latitudes in parts of the Navajo Nation that can be hard to track and created hotlines to direct Indigenous voters to the right place, since voting precincts tend to be confusing. This robust voter outreach by grassroots advocates, many believe, impacted the results of the election in the state.

“If it hadn’t been for the tribal nations, Biden truly wouldn’t be in office,” said Tara Benally, field director for the Rural Utah Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates and performs outreach to underrepresented voters. “Just seeing the turnout, that’s something Biden should be aware of and needs to truly understand that he has to work with these Indigenous nations — because if Biden doesn’t come through for these Indigenous nations, what does that mean for him? Where does Trump come into play again?”

The Navajo Nation turned out for Democrats after being ignored by Republican leaders in the pandemic

2020, in particular, has been a challenging year for tribal communities. Indigenous people were hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, which compounded the underlying health and environmental injustices they already face. By May, the Navajo Nation quickly recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases per capita in the country, exceeding numbers in New York and New Jersey. Yet despite the devastating health emergency, Republican state officials did little to keep the virus from spreading. Not only did the Trump administration slash funding for Indigenous communities, but policies for mask mandates, business lockdowns, and translations for Covid-19 resources were lacking. And when the federal stimulus package rolled out nationwide, finances were slow to arrive in tribal nations.

“There’s been a lot of distrust with the government, especially with treaties and funding. Anytime we get a budget, they tend to get cut,” Benally said. “When nations do expect funding from the federal government, it’s very minimal and it doesn’t go very far.”

Native Americans continue to reckon with a longstanding history of neglect and mistreatment. These unjust legacies have impacted their access to health care services, education, water affordability, and other critical resources. So when Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, released a comprehensive plan for tribal nations in October, which highlights strengthening nation-to-nation relationships and addressing health disparities, Indigenous communities caught a slight glimpse of hope.

Jade Begay, a member of the Diné and Tesuque Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and the creative director of NDN Collective, an organization dedicated to building Indigenous power, says she was encouraged by the first two points in Biden’s plan, which reflect the current crises tribal nations are facing, including growing mistrust in the federal government as well as the pandemic that has strained health care services in Indigenous communities.

“But in years to come,” she added, “what would be great to see from elected officials and the Democratic Party, if they want to keep winning Indian Country, is investment to remove voter suppression barriers, to make voting more accessible to our communities, to invest in roads, and all of these things that just make traveling to cast a vote easier.”

As with most marginalized communities across the country, voter suppression and accessibility issues run rampant in tribal nations. For instance, unjust mail services make it difficult for Native Americans on tribal lands to vote. Scottsdale, Arizona, a city of roughly 184 square miles, has 12 post offices compared to 26 post offices in the entire Navajo Nation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles; the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has zero.

In addition to Biden’s victory in Arizona, Begay said Indigenous communities played a pivotal role in helping Mark Kelly flip a Senate seat to Democrat. Kelly spent campaign dollars actively reaching out to the Navajo Nation, running ads in the Diné language to bridge communication barriers. “That kind of outreach is really important and it shows the level of care and thoughtfulness in language gaps,” she said.

This year’s election also broke records in representation: Three of the 18 Native American women who ran for office won congressional seats — Democrats Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member in New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a Ho-Chunk Nation member in Kansas, were both reelected to a second term, while Republican Yvette Herrell, member of the Cherokee Nation in New Mexico, beat the Democratic incumbent — the highest number in a single election cycle. Native American women represent about 1.1 percent of the US population yet have historically been underrepresented in Congress. Both Begay and Benally underscored the significance of this shift, especially in light of the longstanding patriarchal structure in Indigenous communities.

“At this time, the representation is really going to elevate women’s voices, as a woman, as a mother, and as a parent,” said Benally. “For many decades, it has just been the male leadership; it’s always been one-sided. In Navajo, men turn to their women on what needs to happen, what happens on a day-to-day basis, because the women took care of the house, the kids, and all the men did was go out to gather and hunt. For so long, that hasn’t happened here with the federal government, and now that it’s happening, Indigenous women will really make change happen for the people.”

But even with Indigenous people overwhelmingly throwing their support to a Biden-Harris administration, organizers say the work is not done. From stopping the Keystone XL pipeline to protecting Indigenous women and girls as well as demilitarizing the US-Mexico border that crosses tribal land, Begay said there is still a spate of issues that Native Americans want to see a new administration held accountable for.

“With women in office, they know what it means to take care of a family around the clock,” she said. “To have that kind of person in leadership in these offices makes a lot of sense for how we’re dealing with a pandemic, how we deal with climate change, all of these things that influence the livelihoods of our families — how we access food, how we access our basic needs — and so having that kind of leadership in place is going to be really important.”

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